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Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 21: What I Saw in America,
The Resurrection of Rome, Sidelights
I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the
mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative
energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something
touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist,
who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and
clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his
blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is
not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of
nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not
an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside
all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel
is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long
as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some
classic frieze, merely as those who labor and love their children and
die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look
at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise
themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists
talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and
understand each other. In reality that is the moment of supreme danger--the
moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which
a meeting meant a duel.
Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travelers
are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them
for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for
being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that
they take their own amusement seriously. They base on it their serious
ideas of international instruction. It was said that the Englishman takes
his pleasures sadly; and the pleasure of despising foreigners is one which
he takes most sadly of all. He comes to scoff and does not remain to pray,
but rather to excommunicate. Hence in international relations there is
far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that
there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship
between nations which is actually founded on differences.
Let me begin my American impressions with two impressions I had before
I went to America. One was an incident and the other an idea; and when
taken together they illustrate the attitude I mean. The first principle
is that nobody should be ashamed of thinking a thing funny because it
is foreign; the second is that he should be ashamed of thinking it wrong
because it is funny. The reaction of his senses and superficial habits
of mind against something new, and to him abnormal, is a perfectly healthy
reaction. But the mind which imagines that mere unfamiliarity can possibly
prove anything about inferiority is a very inadequate mind. It is inadequate
even in criticizing things that may really be inferior to the things involved
here. It is far better to laugh at a Negro for having a black face than
to sneer at him for having a sloping skull. It is proportionally even
more preferable to laugh rather than judge in dealing with highly civilized
peoples. Therefore I put at the beginning two working examples of what
I felt about America before I saw it; the sort of thing that a man has
a right to enjoy as a joke, and the sort of thing he has a duty to understand
and respect, because it is the explanation of the joke.
When I went to the American consulate to regularize my passports, I was
capable of expecting the American consulate to be American. Embassies
and consulates are by tradition like islands of the soil for which they
stand; and I have often found the tradition corresponding to a truth.
I have seen the unmistakable French official living on omelettes and a
little wine and serving his sacred abstractions under the last palm-trees
frying in a desert. In the heat and noise of quarreling Turks and Egyptians,
I have come suddenly, as with the cool shock of his own shower-bath, on
the listless amiability of the English gentleman. The officials I interviewed
were very American, especially in being very polite; for whatever may
have been the mood or meaning of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have always found
Americans by far the politest people in the world. They put in my hands
a form to be filled up, to all appearances like other forms I had filled
up in other passport offices. But in reality it was very different from
any form I had ever filled up in my life. At least it was a little like
a freer form of the game called "Confessions" which my friends and I invented
in our youth; an examination paper containing questions like, "If you
saw a rhinoceros in the front garden, what would you do?" One of my friends,
I remember, wrote, "Take the pledge." But that is another story, and might
bring Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson on the scene before his time.
of the questions on the paper was, "Are you an anarchist?" To which a
detached philosopher would naturally feel inclined to answer, "What the
devil has that to do with you? Are you an atheist" along with some playful
efforts to cross-examine the official about what constitutes atheist.
Then there was the question, "Are you in favor of subverting the government
of the United States by force?" Against this I should write, "I prefer
to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning."
The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity, had then written down,
"Are you a polygamist?" The answer to this is, "No such luck" or "Not
such a fool," according to our experience of the other sex. But perhaps
a better answer would be that given to W. T. Stead when he circulated
the rhetorical question, "Shall I slay my brother Boer"--the answer that
ran, "Never interfere in family matters." But among many things that amused
me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the
most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled
to treat it respectfully. I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking
to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and
sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, "I am an anarchist. I
hate you all and wish to destroy you." Or, "I intend to subvert by force
the government of the United States as soon as possible, sticking the
long sheath-knife in my left trouser-pocket into your President at the
earliest opportunity." Or again, "Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and
my forty-seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries."
There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and
it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and
good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain
to tell no lies.
Now that is the model of the sort of foreign practice, founded on foreign
problems, at which a man's first impulse is naturally to laugh. Nor have
I any intention of apologizing for my laughter. A man is perfectly entitled
to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What
he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then
criticise it as if he comprehended it. The very fact of its unfamiliarity
and mystery ought to set him thinking about the deeper causes that make
people so different from himself, and that without merely assuming that
they must be inferior to himself.
Superficially this is rather a queer business. It would be easy enough
to suggest that in this America has introduced a quite abnormal spirit
of inquisition; an interference with liberty unknown among all the ancient
despotisms and aristocracies. About that there will be something to be
said later; but superficially it is true that this degree of officialism
is comparatively unique. In a journey which I took only the year before
I had occasion to have my papers passed by governments which many worthy
people in the West would vaguely identify with corsairs and assassins;
I have stood on the other side of Jordan, in the land ruled by a rude
Arab chief, where the police looked so like brigands that one wondered
what the brigands looked like. But they did not ask me whether I had come
to subvert the power of the Shereef; and they did not exhibit the faintest
curiosity about my personal views on the ethical basis of civil authority.
These ministers of ancient Moslem despotism did not care about whether
I was an anarchist; and naturally would not have minded if I had been
a polygamist. The Arab chief was probably a polygamist himself. These
slaves of Asiatic autocracy were content, in the old liberal fashion,
to judge me by my actions; they did not inquire into my thoughts. They
held their power as limited to the limitation of practice; they did not
forbid me to hold a theory. It would be easy to argue here that Western
democracy persecutes where even Eastern despotism tolerates or emancipates.
It would be easy to develop the fancy that, as compared with the sultans
of Turkey or Egypt, the American Constitution is a thing like the Spanish
Only the traveler who stops at that point is totally wrong; and the traveler
only too often does stop at that point. He has found something to make
him laugh, and he will not suffer it to make him think. And the remedy
is not to unsay what he has said, not even, so to speak, to unlaugh what
he has laughed, not to deny that there is something unique and curious
about this American inquisition into our abstract opinions, but rather
to continue the train of thought, and follow the admirable advice of Mr.
H. G. Wells, who said, "It is not much good thinking of a thing unless
you think it out." It is not to deny that American officialism is rather
peculiar on this point, but to inquire what it really is which makes America
peculiar, or which is peculiar to America. In short, it is to get some
ultimate idea of what America is; and the answer to that question will
reveal something much deeper and grander and more worthy of our intelligent
It may have seemed something less than a compliment to compare the American
Constitution to the Spanish Inquisition. But oddly enough, it does involve
a truth, and still more oddly perhaps, it does involve a compliment. The
American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that
it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that
is founded on creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological
lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of
practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.
It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments
exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that
reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism. and it does also by
inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate
authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern
political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas,
and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim
is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about
divine, at least about human things.
Now a creed is at once the broadest and the narrowest thing in the world.
In its nature it is as broad as its scheme for a brotherhood of all men.
In its nature it is limited by its definition of the nature of all men.
This was true of the Christian Church, which was truly said to exclude
neither Jew nor Greek, but which did definitely substitute something else
for Jewish religion or Greek philosophy. It was truly said to be a net
drawing in of all kinds; but a net of a certain pattern, the pattern of
Peter the Fisherman. And this is true even of the most disastrous distortions
or degradations of that creed; and true among others of the Spanish Inquisition.
It may have been narrow about theology, it could not confess to being
narrow about nationality or ethnology. The Spanish Inquisition might be
admittedly Inquisitorial; but the Spanish Inquisition could not be merely
Spanish. Such a Spaniard, even when he was narrower than his own creed,
had to be broader than his own empire. He might burn a philosopher because
he was heterodox; but he must accept a barbarian because he was orthodox.
And we see, even in modern times, that the same Church which is blamed
for making sages heretics is also blamed for making savages priests. Now
in a much vaguer and more evolutionary fashion, there is something of
the same idea at the back of the great American experiment; the experiment
of a democracy of diverse races which has been compared to a melting-pot.
But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape
and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must
not melt. The original shape was traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy;
and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites
all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such
a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned,
its exclusiveness is religious because it is not racial. The missionary
can condemn a cannibal, precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich
Islander. And in something of the same spirit the American may exclude
a polygamist, precisely because he cannot exclude a Turk.
Now in America this is no idle theory. It may have been theoretical, though
it was thoroughly sincere, when that great Virginian gentleman declared
it in surroundings that still had something of the character of an English
countryside. It is not merely theoretical now. There is nothing to prevent
America being literally invaded by Turks, as she is invaded by Jews or
Bulgars. In the most exquisitely inconsequent of the Bab Ballads, we are
told concerning Pasha Bailey Ben:
One morning knocked at half-past eight A tall Red Indian at his gate.
In Turkey, as you'r' p'raps aware, Red Indians are extremely rare.
But the converse need by no means be true. There is nothing in the nature
of things to prevent an emigration of Turks increasing and multiplying
on the plains where the Red Indians wandered; there is nothing to necessitate
the Turks being extremely rare. The Red Indians, alas, are likely to be
rarer. And as I much prefer Red Indians to Turks, I speak without prejudice;
but the point here is that America, partly by original theory and partly
by historical accident, does lie open to racial admixtures which most
countries would think incongruous or comic. That is why it is only fair
to read any American definitions or rules in a certain light, and relatively
to a rather unique position. It is not fair to compare the position of
those who may meet Turks in the back street with that of those who have
never met Turks except in the Bab Ballads. It is not fair simply to compare
America with England in its regulations about the Turk. In short, it is
not fair to do what almost every Englishman probably does; to look at
the American international examination paper, and laugh and be satisfied
with saying, "We don't have any of that nonsense in England."
We do not have any of that nonsense in England because we have never attempted
to have any of that philosophy in England. And, above all, because we
have the enormous advantage of feeling it natural to be national, because
there is nothing else to be. England in these days is not well governed;
England is not well educated; England suffers from wealth and poverty
that are not well distributed. But England is English--esto perpetua.
England is English as France is French or Ireland is Irish; the great
mass of men taking certain national traditions for granted. Now this gives
us a totally different and a very much easier task. We have not got an
inquisition, because we have not got a creed; but it is arguable that
we do not need a creed, because we have got a character. In any of the
old nations the national unity is preserved by the national type. Because
we have a type we do not need to have a test.
Take that innocent question, "Are you an anarchist?" which is intrinsically
quite as impudent as "Are you an optimist?" or "Are you a philanthropist"
I am not discussing here whether these things are right, but whether most
of us are in a position to know them rightly. Now it is quite true that
most Englishmen do not find it necessary to go about all day asking each
other whether they are anarchists. It is quite true that the phrase occurs
on no British forms that I have seen. But this is not only because most
of the Englishmen are not anarchists. It is even more because even the
anarchists are Englishmen. For instance, it would be easy to make fun
of the American formula by noting that the cap would fit all sorts of
bald academic heads. It might well be maintained that Herbert Spencer
was an anarchist. It is practically certain that Auberon Herbert was an
anarchist. But Herbert Spencer was an extraordinary typical Englishman
of the Nonconformist middle class. And Auberon Herbert was an extraordinarily
typical English aristocrat of the old and genuine aristocracy.
Everyone knew in his head that the squire would not throw a bomb at the
Queen, and the Nonconformist would not throw a bomb at anybody. Every
one knew that there was something subconscious in a man like Auberon Herbert,
which would have come out only in throwing bombs at the enemies of England;
as it did come out in his son and namesake, the generous and unforgotten.
who fell flinging bombs from the sky far beyond the German line. Every
one knows that normally, in the last resort, the English gentleman is
patriotic. Every one knows that the English Nonconformist is national
even when he denies that he is patriotic. Nothing is more notable indeed
than the fact that nobody is more stamped with the mark of his own nation
than the man who says that there ought to be no nations. Somebody called
Cobden the International Man; but no man could be more English than Cobden.
Everybody recognises Tolstoy as the iconoclast of all patriotism; but
nobody could be more Russian than Tolstoy. In the old countries where
there are these national types, the types may be allowed to hold any theories.
Even if they hold certain theories they are unlikely to do certain things.
So the conscientious objector, in the English sense, may be and is one
of the peculiar by-products of England. But the conscientious objector
will probably have a conscientious objection to throwing bombs.
Now I am very far from intending to imply that these American tests are
good tests or that there is no danger of tyranny becoming the temptation
of America. I shall have something to say later on about that temptation
or tendency. Nor do I say that they apply consistently this conception
of a nation with the soul of a church, protected by religious and not
racial selection. If they did apply that principle consistently, they
would have to exclude pessimists and rich cynics who deny the democratic
ideal; an excellent thing but a rather improbable one. What I say is that
when we realise that this principle exists at all, we see the whole position
in a totally different perspective. We say that the Americans are doing
something heroic or doing something insane, or doing it in an unworkable
or unworthy fashion, instead of simply wondering what the devil they are
Read more about G.K. Chesterton's life and work here
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